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Blog Archive : April 2017

Timna Axel posted a blog on Apr 7, 2017

The Lawyer Revolutionaries: Source of Income (SOI) Series Part Three

Q&A with Jonathan Baum, Director of Pro Bono Services, Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP

This is the third and final installment of a series focusing on Source of Income (SOI) discrimination in the Chicago metropolitan area. Read our Part I and Part II stories. For more information on our SOI series, contact Communications Associate Timna Axel at 312-888-4194.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Hyde Park. When I was nine years old we moved to Evanston, which is actually where I live now. I grew up in a civil rights family. My parents were very active; my father was a sociologist and my mother was a school teacher. One of the first things we did after we moved to Evanston in 1967, I remember, was marching around the Evanston civic center demonstrating for an open housing ordinance.

How did you become a lawyer?
After college, I went to work on Capitol Hill for Congressman Abner Mikva, who is a progressive legend and was my mentor. My uncle was a law professor at the time, and I met with him as I was thinking about going to law school. He knew how active I’d been in political causes, and he said, “Lawyers make very poor revolutionaries, because they never believe in anything with total conviction.” And so I’ve tried to be not that kind of lawyer.

How did you first get involved with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee?
In the late 80s, I got a job with Sidley Austin when they agreed to let me set one third of my time aside for pro bono work in exchange for lowering my salary to two-thirds of the usual. That’s where I did my first work with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee.

The most memorable case we did from that time involved a native born US citizen of Palestinian background who was working as a security guard at a bank. On the morning that the Gulf War started, the manager of the bank started quizzing him on what he thought about US involvement in the war. His answers were not enthusiastic. The manager then called the security company and said, “I want this guy fired because he’s a terrorist.” We ended up suing the security company and the bank and got a decent settlement. The reason it was so memorable is that it became so politically charged – there was a lot of heat on us to back off because the owner of the security company was very well connected.

In 1993, you were hired by Katten to direct their pro bono program, becoming the first law firm partner in the Midwest to focus exclusively on the delivery of pro bono work. What does the job entail?
My job involves personally litigating pro bono matters, as well as coordinating and facilitating the pro bono work of our firm at all of Katten’s offices around the world. When I joined I continued to do work for Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, and I became Chairman of the Board in 2004. Most of my work has been in housing, hate crimes, and public accommodations discrimination – meaning discrimination in restaurants, theatres, hotels, etc.

What are some interesting cases you’ve handled?
There are two interesting cases I did that come to mind.

One involved an African American mother and her son who frequented a fast food restaurant. They began to notice that every time they wanted to use the restroom it was “closed for repair,” but people who were not black were being buzzed into the bathroom on those same days. And this was the 90s! In Chicago! So we sued them and got a settlement.

Another case involved a young Hispanic boy who had been seriously injured in an accident. His parents wanted to have a fundraiser to help cover his medical bills, and they decided to rent out a restaurant for the event. The restaurant was lined up by one of their friends who was white, but most of the people who showed up were Latino. So on the night of the event, the manager went ballistic and said “everybody out!” and shut down the event. So we sued them, and we actually made more money in the settlement than they would have raised in the fundraiser.

When you bring these cases forward, it has a number of impacts. It impacts the people that were discriminated against, the people you have successfully sued, and others in the industry when they see these victories publicized in the media. It also has an impact on the lawyers doing the work. I never do one of these cases alone, and I always see the impact it has on the associates. It’s very easy to get isolated within a law firm from what goes on in the real world. I remember one Chicago Lawyers’ Committee case we took on behalf of an African American woman who saw a listing for an apartment on the Gold Coast. She made an appointment over the phone to go see it, but when she arrived they said, “Oh, it’s been rented.” So she got really suspicious and called them again, and they said “Come on over and check it out!” We had to get testers, and of the three white testers and the three black testers, only the three white ones were asked to come check it out. We got a substantial settlement in that case. As usual I sent an email around the firm telling people about the victory. The single most common response I got to that email was “Oh, you mean things like that still go on?” This work keeps you grounded.

What’s your experience with Source of Income (SOI) discrimination cases?
I am personally handling Latonya English’s case, which is actually my first Source of Income (SOI) case. It’s so obviously tied to race. When I met with Ms. English and heard her story and her experience, it confirmed for me that SOI discrimination is grounded in stereotypes. People think, “I don’t want a person who gets a voucher to live here because this is what voucher holders are like.” In her case, she was told the landlord didn’t like Section 8 renters because they don’t keep up the property, they are a bad credit risk, and other stereotypes. She filed her own complaint with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. The landlord responded, and in our response we laid out our very strong legal arguments.

Why does fair housing work speak to you?
There are a few basic necessities to live, like food and shelter. Housing is a basic thing you need. And there’s a lot of discrimination that flows from housing discrimination. For example, schools. If you can’t live in certain places, you also miss out on all of the services, especially education, that you’d get in that neighborhood. It has a ripple effect.

Housing discrimination personally offends me because of my background. Evanston was a very different community in the 60’s. When I was a kid, there was a lot of prejudice. When my parents looked for a house in north Evanston, they experienced steering because they were Jewish. It’s just wrong, and it has been going on for so long.

What are the challenges for an attorney who wants to take on pro bono work?
The biggest challenge is that there are only 24 hours in a day. Some firms require pro bono work, which I’ve never been a fan of. I think that the natural instincts of attorneys to do pro bono work are strong enough that if you facilitate and support them, the work will happen and will be stronger than if you require it.

Our philosophy is to strongly encourage pro bono work. We give billable hour credit for pro bono work that counts toward an attorney’s minimum billable hours, and even toward their hours-based bonuses. In fact, the first 100 hours a year of pro bono work count automatically toward the attorney’s billable hours. It’s a floor, not a ceiling. We also have a very organic pro bono program that is responsive to the interests of our attorneys. Every year, I survey attorneys about their areas of interest. I call this process match making. We make sure our attorneys have training, a partner supervising them, and that their work is recognized and featured within the firm and media. We even have pro bono service awards. The truth is you are always swimming upstream.

What are the biggest rewards of doing pro bono work?
In a survey I saw, the most common reason people gave for not doing pro bono work was that they didn’t have time. The most common reason for doing it was that it made them feel good about being a lawyer. That’s consistent with my experience. I can tell you that after the travel ban came down, I had people flocking in asking how they can help refugees. The election really has been a boom for pro bono work. Partly because people feel that the rule of law is being threatened. Many lawyers of varying political views believe that the rule of law is on the line.

What’s your advice for an attorney who is taking on a pro bono case?
View it as a real case. Don’t think it won’t require research, effort, and analysis. The law is the law, and many pieces of civil rights litigation are much more intellectually challenging than commercial litigation. You have to be prepared – good intentions are not enough. You have to apply your best legal skills and attention as you would for a paying client. Being realistic, you also have to think about scheduling. In the moment, there may be a time pressure on both a paying and a pro bono case – you’ll have to figure out how to do both. That may mean longer hours at the office and less hours with your family for that stretch of time.

What is the value of partnering with organizations like Chicago Lawyers’ Committee?
Organizations like Chicago Lawyers’ Committee are indispensable to our pro bono work. You provide the essential infrastructure to engage in that kind of work by having people who are steeped in the substance of civil rights law and are connected to the communities where the cases come from. Those are all functions we cannot do. We piggyback on efforts by organizations like Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, from getting and screening clients to the wisdom on how to proceed.  That’s why at the end of the day, we always donate our fees back to Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, because that allows you to do more cases.

Where do you see pro bono firm culture going over the next decade?
There are no permanent victories. Pro bono volunteerism really ebbs and flows. Partly it’s a reflection of the national culture and who’s coming out of law school. During the Reagan years, people were coming out of law school with no interest in pro bono work. That’s certainly not true now. And sometimes you have people running law firms that are more sympathetic than others. I was the first one, but there are now 13 or 14 people at Chicago law firms who do what I do. There are almost 150 across the country. Pro bono work is becoming institutionalized, which I think is a good sign.

Timna Axel posted a blog on Apr 6, 2017

Attorney General’s Sweeping Review Marks a Federal Retreat from Constitutional Policing and a Battle Cry for Chicago-Led Reform

Contact:        Timna Axel, Communications Associate

                       P: 312888-4194 | E:

April 6, 2017
CHICAGO – US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ order last Friday directing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct a sweeping review of federal agreements with dozens of law enforcement agencies marks the first step in a federal retreat from the consent decrees negotiated under the Obama Administration that would ensure constitutional policing in departments across the country, including potentially in the city of Chicago.

The Police Accountability Collaborative, a group of civil rights advocates and government watchdogs formed after the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, is doubling down on its efforts to advocate for the reforms outlined in the DOJ’s own recommendations following a yearlong investigation of Chicago’s Police Department that found officers routinely use unreasonable force without transparency or accountability.

After the DOJ released its report on the Chicago Police Department in the final day of the Obama Administration, some police reform advocates in Chicago hoped that a federal consent decree could still be pushed through before the new administration, which vowed to dismantle federal oversight, was installed.

“We’ve known this was coming since the new Administration took office,” said Executive Director Bonnie Allen of Chicago Lawyers’ Committee. “This announcement doesn’t change the nature of our work pressing for local leadership to advance reform. It just underscores the need for it.”

Chicago’s continuous battle with gun violence stems from more than a century of manufactured residential segregation, community disenfranchisement, and high levels of incarceration in communities of color. These deeply embedded community problems have contributed to the incubation of an underground economy, often driven by the very violence and gang activity that our current Chicago police force aims to mitigate.

Our President’s call for the use of federal law enforcement to resolve issues related to entrenched racial barriers and structural inequities is misguided. As the DOJ report observed, city centers with high concentrations of communities of color must come to an agreement that mediates the relationship between the police force and the communities they serve. A retreat on consent decrees nationwide, and locally within Chicago, will only result in further perpetuation of the unlawful use of excessive police force revealed in the DOJ’s report. 

Timna Axel posted a blog on Apr 4, 2017

Q&A with Beau Tremitiere

Beau Tremitiere is the Editor-in-Chief of the Northwestern University Law Review and previously served as an aide in the United States Senate for Joe Manchin. Beau is a Next Generation Leader with the American Constitution Society, and he serves as co-chair of Election RAVE, a non-partisan campaign to increase electoral participation and education. Last year, Election RAVE led a successful effort to cancel Northwestern and other law school classes on Election Day in order to encourage students and faculty to volunteer at the polls in partnership with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee and other poll watching organizations. This interview was conducted in March 2017.

How did you get started fighting for voter access?

After college, my wife and I started a micro finance nonprofit in Ghana supporting about 70 small family businesses. I’d always had a passion for service, and that venture was an exciting way to bring the passion to life. When we returned to the United States, I worked on Capitol Hill for several years, mostly as a tax, healthcare, and education policy aide to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

Manchin was exceptionally responsive to the people of West Virginia—uniquely responsive in a place where it’s easy for some politicians with elections every six years to disconnect from their constituents. He remained committed to translating his people’s concerns into public policy, maybe sometimes to a fault. But what I saw in many other offices was the opposite—there was little ability for people to have their values represented through their representatives. Once I learned that many politicians were so consistently flouting the popular will, I felt it was of even greater importance that we ensure that on Election Day, people always have the opportunity to stand up for what they believe in and express that clearly and strongly. There are a lot of structural challenges that keep representatives from making change their people want and deserve, and strengthening voting rights is one way to get at these issues.

During my first year at law school at Northwestern, I realized I was spending all my time at an institution dedicated to rule of law and democracy, yet it was doing little in practice to bring those values to life. By having class on Election Day and not making registration easy for new residents, it was dissuading people from participating in elections. That conflict was so apparent, and it brought to light how little I’d been doing personally to be an advocate and to support voting rights. It spurred my desire to get involved and to live out my values.

Why the focus on law schools and law students in particular?

When you become a lawyer, even if you go into transactional practice or do something removed from public service, you are part of a system that is at, its core, committed to the rule of law and the fundamental American values of participation and self-determination. I’m afraid that some lawyers forget that. Law schools have us captured for three years as we transition from ordinary people to officers of the court. Not only can they instill values around service and participation, but I think they have a duty to do so. I’m very proud of Northwestern Law for the degree to which they’ve made service a priority and a core value of the school. But there’s always more that can be done. To the degree that students end up on a career path far away from that sort of service, law school can be a paradigm-shifting opportunity. Many of my classmates had never volunteered in an election prior to this November, but after one day at the polls meeting the people affected by access or registration issues and helping them exercise their rights . . . it’s like a drug. Now they’re hooked.

How did you collaborate to make change happen at Northwestern?

I sat down with progressive and conservative campus organization leaders, namely the Federalist and American Constitution Societies. There was enthusiastic buy-in immediately for Election RAVE, and that small group of student leaders organized a petition drive on campus. We ended up with approximately a third of the school signed on to support this program. Then we sat down with our dean, Dan Rodriguez, and presented him with this idea. We were nervous going in but he was instantly supportive, and committed essentially on the spot. The school was with us every step of the way from then on out.

I think it’s important that we think of these issues as every-single-day problems that require every-single-day solutions. In Illinois, elections happen at least once a year, but voting rights and civic engagement are 24/7/365 projects. We tried to bring that concept to life by having programming at the law school all throughout the fall. We brought in amazing speakers such as Voting Rights and Civic Empowerment Director Ami Gandhi to talk about voting rights issues from different perspectives. We had registration drives on campus for Illinois students and absentee ballot drives for out-of-state students, and this constant bombardment around the upcoming election helped students, faculty, and staff make informed decisions and participate as both voters and volunteers.

In the end, approximately 40 Northwestern Law students and faculty served as Election Protection poll watchers or hotline volunteers, including the Dean himself. Well over 100 students and faculty volunteered on Election Day. And there was real interest in volunteerism from students and faculty at Penn, Harvard, Pitt, and Berkeley, among other schools around the country. 

I cannot overstate how important our relationship with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee and Voting Rights Director Ami Gandhi has been. We would have done good work on our own, but it was this partnership more than any other that made it exceptional - and your patience in working with me and my peers. This is a remarkable group of people and I felt really fortunate to get to work with you. We partnered with several other organizations, such high school volunteer groups, other poll watching and canvassing groups, and disability access groups—but there’s a reason that I chose to spend my Election Day as an Election Protection volunteer.

What was your experience like during the November 2016 election?

I spent Election Day volunteering with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Election Protection. I was down in Chicago driving around five or six precincts on the south side. It was an incredible day, and we had pretty smooth sailing compared to what I’d seen in previous elections. There was high enthusiasm and good energy; I felt privileged to be there. I remember one voter in particular, a young woman with two kids in tow, one wrapped around her ankle and the other on her shoulders. She told us she was homeless. She was holding onto one kid with one arm and verification for residency from her shelter in the other. She came in and admitted she’d never voted before, she was only 19 or 20 years old, and you could just see the excitement emanating from her by just being in the room and knowing she would be able to cast her first ballot. The judges helped her get registered and cast her ballot. She was so grateful and I could see her tearing up as she filled out her ballot. After she cast her vote, I went and spoke to her. She was clasping her “I Voted” bracelet and I offered to help her put it on, but she wanted to wait and take a picture with her phone. But she hadn’t been able to charge her phone in a week. So she neatly folded it up and put it in her pocket, and I remember seeing the smile on her face as she walked out the door. That alone was worth it. I had my own bracelet on for nearly seven weeks after that.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve found in advocating for Election Day reform?

At Northwestern Law, I was never satisfied with the number of volunteers we had. My goal was 100 percent. But we had well over one hundred more people volunteering than would’ve had we not started this program. The biggest challenge was getting busy law students involved—convincing folks with a lot on their schedule that this was an important use of time. While I still regret not having closer to full volunteer participation, I’ve been trying to focus on the people who did volunteer. With other schools in Illinois and elsewhere, we did whatever we could to help create an environment where a significant percentage of student and faculty could give back on Election Day. Few deans matched Dean Rodriguez’s enthusiasm and commitment, so we had to adjust and be flexible: ask individual professors to cancel class, excuse absences, provide students with easy access to sign-up resources, etc. Northwestern cancelled classes with just a few months’ notice. Few other schools were willing to do that. Certain schools just didn’t see this as an urgent problem, in many cases, these campuses were in places without sister chapters of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. In those places, you don’t have advocates identifying and bringing attention to the severity and consequences of disenfranchisement and voter suppression, so you have to explain why this is an experience that would benefit their students and their communities.

We ended up contacting and speaking with probably 80 schools around the country. A few dozen engaged intensely and had student leaders doing great work. We focused on states where we anticipated problems – Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – where we anticipated the highest need for non-partisan student support. There was less enthusiastic support in some of those places than I had hoped. Convincing people that encouraging students to vote and volunteer is as apolitical as anything is a challenge, especially in places where people feel like they need to walk on eggshells.

You have to make volunteerism accessible, encouraged, and highly valued, and I think the best way to do that is to eliminate all possible obstacles, aggressively support students who want to volunteer, and help make it easy for them to do so. You can encourage or require faculty to record lectures, implore them not to have tests or things they can’t miss on that day. Our law schools need to demonstrate that these are important values.

Looking at the national political landscape today, what’s your biggest fear regarding voting rights?

My biggest fear is that the idea that people should have a chance to participate in our democracy becomes not just a question, but a political one. It’s naïve to pretend that it hasn’t been a question before. Much of Jim Crow was built that question, by ensuring voters of color were kept from exercising their voting rights. But I remain optimistic that we can get to a point where we fight political wars on other grounds.

What’s the next target on Election RAVE’s agenda?

I will be stepping away for two years, as I will be clerking for Judge John Kronstadt of the US District Court for the Central District of California and for Judge M. Margaret McKeown of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. That said, this movement always has been and will continue to be much, much bigger than me and my contributions.

One goal is ensuring that Northwestern Law continues and expands its commitment for future elections. We want to pay close attention to midterms and primaries as well – we can’t be okay with institutions and people engaging only every four years during high-profile presidential elections. Nationally, the goal is continuing to support other passionate students, faculty, and administrators who want to help their schools embrace these values and create opportunities for giving back on Election Day. I’m not entirely sure what that’s going to look like, but it’s really important to me.

It’s clear there is so much potential in this population of lawyers and soon-to-be lawyers. The fit is so perfectly aligned, and the need is enormous. It just takes a bit of elbow grease to bring it all together.